The Young Practitioner – PROLOGUE



North Africa, November, 1942 – 45km west of Tunis


The M4 Sherman tank ground to a halt with a sick sputter from its Continental R975 C1 engine.

“C’mon baby!” begged Captain Ronald “Snowman” Winters as he caressed the turret of the metal beast from his lookout position atop the war machine.

The sputtering continued for another thirty seconds or so, then stopped with a metallic grinding. The beast was dead. Again.

“FUBAR!” drawled a southern voice below the captain from the belly of the beast.

“J.T., It’s the second time that damn engine has died in the last hour. Can you fix it or not, sergeant?”

“Ain’t been a machine I couldn’t fix, Snowman. You have yourself a genuine Kansas farm boy here! We kin fix anythin’ that runs!” replied the happy-go-lucky Sergeant, Jonathan “J.T.” Tompkins. Captain Winters rolled his eyes. Would he ever get used to the eternal optimism of this boy?

It was over a hundred degrees already and it was only eight o’clock in the morning. The tank had been a part of a larger American First Armored Division racing Eastbound to join Montgomery and the British for a push toward Tunis. The five-man crew had been told to leave their tank when the engine faltered due to the desert sand, but the crew stubbornly refused to give up their home.

Now they were on their own, at least an hour behind the rest of the convoy.

“Damn it,” muttered Winters, as he wiped the sweat that poured into his eyes. The General was gonna have his ass and he new it.

He opened his canteen and took a long swig. The water was hot, but at least it was wet. After Pearl Harbor, he’d known the country was going to be at war. He wanted a shot at the Japanese for what they did in Hawaii. Instead he’d been shipped to North Africa and been put in command of a metal hotbox in the middle of the desert.

“Damn it all to Hell,” he said.

He sighed and climbed out of his command seat lifting his binoculars to his eyes. He took a quick look around. Nothing but a series of dunes in front of them.

“All right boys,” he called back into the tank. “Might as well get out of there while the sergeant works his miracle to get us running again.”

The Captain climbed the rest of the way out and jumped to the ground. A loud scrambling was heard as the two drivers and gunner tried to climb over themselves to reach the hatch first.

Corporal David Bernstein was first. The Jew from Brooklyn hopped out with ease and practically had his Lucky Strike lit before he reached the ground. Privates Erik Engel from Holland and Frank Wilson from California were next. All boys around the age of eighteen.

“J.T., you better get us movin’ again or we’re gonna thump ya,” said the blonde man from Massachusetts.

“Yeah!” said Wilson, pounding his fist on the outside of the tank. The man was so big Winters thought he might’ve left a dent in the armor.

“Which one of you rubes has the radio?” asked the Captain. The three men all looked at each other in a mild panic.

“Engel, go get it will you? Jesus H. Christ, boy!”

Winters didn’t like having a foreigner under his command, especially one with such a German sounding name, but he was under orders so he dealt with it. By making Private Engel do all the dirty work.

“Yes sir!” said the Private and hopped back into the Sherman without another word.

“Cap’t, can we have him dig a latrine for us when he get’s back?” asked Wilson. “K-ration’s doin’ things to my gut you wouldn’t believe.”

Before he could answer, a sharp pain came from his chest. Both Wilson and Bernstein were staring at him wide-eyed.

Winters tried to say ‘what are you two assholes lookin’ at?’ but all that came out was a gurgling sound.

The last thing the Captain saw was a large red stain on his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.

“Snipers!” screamed Bernstein in his thick Brooklyn accent. “Take cover behind…”

A red spray flew from the man’s head and a bloody, still lit cigarette bounced off Wilson’s shoulder.

“Holy Shit!” He said diving to his right just as a ricochet sounded behind him.

Crawling on the ground, he made his way to the back of the tank. Dirt kicked up around him as sniper fire tracked his movements.

“You okay Cap’t?” called Engel from inside the tank.

“Cap’s dead and so’s the Jew!” Wilson screamed back.

“Where the SOB’s shootin’ from?” Engel called back.

“Hundred yards, behind that dune off to the right I think!”

Another shot kicked up sand near Wilson’s boot. He drew his legs in close.

“Do something!” He shouted.

The big tank shuttered as the turret spun in the direction Wilson had thought the shots had come from.

There were a couple of clicking sounds, then nothing.

“Damn you Engel…!” began Wilson.

The 75mm canon roared and a second or two later there was a muffled explosion. Wilson put his hands over his ears and closed his eyes.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Engel and J.T. emerged from their steal foxhole. They found Wilson shaking and lying in the fetal position at the back of the tank. The man had pissed himself.

There hadn’t been any further shots as far as they knew. Engel had put a couple additional shells into the various dunes just in case.

While J.T. checked on Wilson, Engel went over to the two bodies lying next to the tank. Captain Winters and Corporal Bernstein were both very dead.

“J.T.,” said Engel. “I’ll get on the radio and get us some help. See if you can get Wilson back into the tank.”

Engel could tell that the good ol’ Southern Boy didn’t like taking orders from him, but technically, as gunner, he outranked him.

After a fleeting look of annoyance, J.T. nodded and said, “You got it Erik.”

The Dutch man radioed in his position and situation. He was told to sit tight. Someone would come for them. Eventually.

J.T. was tending to a shell-shocked Wilson inside the Sherman. Engel had found the dead Captain’s binoculars and–after wiping off a bit of the late commander’s blood– scoped out the sand dunes ahead.

He took it as a good sign that he was still breathing. Maybe he’d killed the damn Huns he thought hopefully.

As he scanned the dunes, his eyes picked up something unusual near where the shells had landed. It looked like metal of some sort imbedded in the dune.

“Hey J.T.,” He called out. “I am going scout up ahead. Take care of Wilson and keep your head down.”

“You too Erik. Put your helmet on!” the Southerner called back.

Despite the desert heat and with a wary glance at what was left of Bernstein’s head, Engel slapped on his helmet.

Cautiously and using whatever cover he could find, it took all of twenty minutes for the soldier to make it to the blast crater.

The dune itself was about twenty feet long and five feet high. When he got closer he saw that it was about five feet deep as well.

Scattered behind the crater–when he’d finally got enough nerve up to look over the top–he saw what was left of two dead men. It wasn’t until he found half of a German helmet with the stylized eagle on it that he’d confirmed who’d been killed.

“Serves you guys right,” he spat. “Damn Krauts.”

He took out the glasses again and swept the area. There was nothing else to see.

With a sigh of relief, he started to make his way back to the Sherman, when he caught sight of the metal piece that had brought him out here in the first place.

Sticking out of the dune was a heavy plate of lead. It was roughly two feet square and bent from the blast damage where a 75mm shell had dislodged it.

“What the Hell is that?” he mumbled to himself. The sweat was pouring off him like a river and he’d left his canteen back with the remaining members of his crew.

The impact crater seemed deeper then he’d thought. He stumbled through the sand toward the gaping hole.

The shell had torn a gash in what looked like a large lead box running the length of the sand dune. Curiosity overriding dehydration, Engel poked his head into the box.

He recoiled in shock.

Half running, half stumbling through the sand, he made his way back to the tank.

J.T. who’d hand enough of the stench inside the Sherman, had poked his head out of the turret hatch. He watched as Engel made a beeline toward him.

“What is it Erik? More Nazi’s?” he yelled.

Engel clamored onto the tank, completely out of breath.

“Here, hold on a minute,” said J.T. He reached down into the tank and brought out a canteen.

Engel gulped down the contents.

“Jesus Erik, you’re as white as a ghost,” J.T. said nervously. “What’s wrong with you?”

“My…my shot killed the snipers,” Engel stuttered. “But it blew a hole in this big metal box.”

“Yeah, so?”

“There’s a body in it,” said Engel, still breathing heavy.

“It’s war, Erik,” said J.T. as he pointed to the late Captain, still lying where he fell. “Bodies happen.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Engel said. “It looks like a man, but it cannot be. It’d be a man about twenty feet tall!”

“Heat’s got to you boy,” said J.T. shaking his head.

“Come see for yourself,” Engel said, panic now being replaced with annoyance at his crewmember’s disbelief.

“What, and get shot? No thanks,” said J.T.

“I killed the Krauts with the first shot. Come see for yourself, or are you-how do you Americans say-chicken?” said Engel.

The jibe worked. Without another word, J.T. jumped down from the turret and he marched purposely toward the dune. Engel hurried to catch up.

“It’s gotta be fake,” J.T. exclaimed a few minutes later.

“It is not. It is some sort of monster,” Engel said. “And it must have been buried here a long time.”

“How the Hell do you know that?” J.T. said dubiously.

“Look at the bandages,” Engel replied. “It is like one of the Egyptian mummies I have seen in the movies.”

“What is it doing out here all by itself?” J.T. asked.

“It is not by itself, J.T.” said Engel quietly, pointing. “Look.”

J.T. stood and looked where Erik had indicated. There were hundreds of mounds exactly the same size and shape of the giant’s tomb.

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